If there was one thing that I learned in Italy this summer, it is that all fats should NOT be treated equally. It is important to be able to recognize healthier fats and try to minimize certain less healthy fats in your diet.
For a general rule of thumb, saturated fats are solid at room temperature. They can be found in many animal products such as cheese, meat, milk, etc. Foods that have lots of butter and shortening are also high in saturated fat. The American Heart Association recommends getting less then 7% of total calories from saturated fats.
Trans fats are found in highly processed foods. They are unsaturated fats that have been altered by hydrogenation to make them more solid. Both trans and saturated fats should be consumed in minimal amounts because of their tendency to raise LDL cholesterol (“bad cholesterol”).
Unsaturated fats dominate the Mediterranean diet. They are consumed in much higher amounts then saturated fats. During the 7 Countries Study performed by Ancel Keys, Cretans were consuming around 40% of daily calories (that’s a lot of olive oil!) from unsaturated fats, yet they were living longer and healthier lives than Americans consuming saturated fats. An unsaturated fat contains at least one double bond in its conformation. Monounsatured fats are often times noted as being “good fats,” and come from vegetable oils such as olive oil. These fats will actually lower LDL cholesterol.
Another type of unsaturated fat is called polyunsatured (meaning multiple double bonds). Polyunsaturated fats get broken down further into Omega 3’s or Omega 6’s. Omega 3’s come from sources such as fatty fish, walnuts, or flax seed, while Omega 6’s are from things like soybean or corn oils. Omega 3’s and 6’s competitively compete in the body and ingesting more Omega 3’s is considerably better to reduce inflammation.
Fat intake should always be monitored mainly because of its high choleric density, effects on cholesterol, and heart health. Be a smart consumer by checking nutrition labels for fat content, and try the Mediterranean style of using vegetable fats rather then butter while cooking or baking.